As a teenager, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge was one of my favorite movies. When I heard that Luhrmann was adapting The Great Gatsby, I thought that it might be a good fit. He captured free spirit of Bohemian Paris so well, why not 1920s New York? But after watching The Great Gatsby last week, I was disappointed, and I want to figure out why.
A film is a fantasy, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the genre. But even in the grittiest drama, we as viewers are aware that these are actors on sets saying words written by a screenwriter. We accept the facade as reality in order to experience the joy of storytelling. So to say that a film feels fake is a dubious criticism. All films are fake. People don’t break into song in real life, but I still love musicals. I’m sure that academics have written countless papers on this phenomenon, but my semi-educated guess is that people are willing to suspend disbelief for the pleasure of being entertained.
Despite all this, my main criticism of The Great Gatsby is that it feels fake. Too fake to ignore. The filters and digital effects used by the filmmakers have glossed up the images beyond any semblance of reality. The soundtrack, executive produced by Jay-Z, attempts to communicate Roaring ’20s excess through the modern-day excess of hip hop. It’s a technique that worked for Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge, using modern music to replicate how jarring the Moulin Rouge atmosphere was to the people of 1899. However, combined with the over-glossed images of Gatsby, the anachronistic music just adds another layer of unreality.
I did not approach this movie as a Great Gatsby hater. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a beautiful writer, and I admire the book. It just happens to have key moments that are challenging to put on screen. The best example is when Nick sees Gatsby holding out his arms toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. The gesture is awkward enough on the page, but when Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio act out the moment, it’s too much. Another detail that’s tough to swallow is Gatsby’s habit of calling people “old sport.” If I were writing a Great Gatsby screenplay, I would throw in an “old sport” or two as a wink to novel purists, but certainly not with a slavish devotion to the source material. Rather unhelpfully, DiCaprio delivers his lines with an affected upper-crusty accent that makes the verbal tick even more grating.
The experience made me a little sad because I wondered if I would still enjoy Moulin Rouge. Had I outgrown Baz Luhrmann’s pyrotechnics altogether? I dusted off my DVD for the sake of science and was happy to be reminded why Moulin Rouge succeeds where Gatsby fails. For starters, being a musical probably gives it more leeway on the believability scale. While the images are stylized, it’s not to the extent that the actors cease to look human. The plot clicks along at the speed of Christian’s typewriter, particularly in the first half, and there are genuinely humorous moments.
Most importantly, there’s Christian, a newcomer to the Bohemian scene, who serves as the viewer’s entry into this fantastical world. Ewan McGregor’s earnest performance can be credited for grounding the story. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway should have served a similar purpose, as he does in the novel, but Nick was swallowed up by Daisy and Gatsby’s melodrama. So there you have it. Adapting a classic novel to the screen is not as easy as it looks.